Can STEM Education Be Taught Through Art? One Nonprofit Is Proving That It Can

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To help prepare children for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs of the future, “we’re teaching them about design thinking, pattern recognition, problem solving, and innovation,” says Art in Action executive director Mizgon Darby. “We’re teaching them through drawing, painting, and sculpture.”

The San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit offers more than 150 lessons to bring arts education to K-8 students, many of whom attend schools that have cut back on the arts. Students first learn to draw shapes, patterns, and landscapes by analyzing techniques from indigenous cultures of Guinea, Polynesia, and native America, as well as from masters like Vincent van Gogh and Henri Rousseau. In higher grades, kids learn to compose architectural renderings by studying ancient buildings from Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, Greece, and Rome.

With just 10 full-time employees, Art in Action’s mission is to bring art programs to 85,000 US schoolchildren each year. It donates 51% of its curriculum programs to budget-deficient US public schools via individual donations and corporate grants. The remaining 49% of its curriculum programs are sold to schools and businesses across the country. The funds from those sales are used to train some 3,000 instructors, including parent volunteers as well as paid teachers, and provide them with curated lesson plans and art supplies. Ahead of each term, Art in Action ships individual art boxes to instructors, who make them available to students during class.

Despite the mountain of evidence proving art education helps reduce student dropout rates, develops critical thinking skills, and prepares students to succeed in all sorts of fields, including science and engineering, declines in government funding have forced many public schools to cut their art programs.

Since joining Art in Action nearly two years ago, Darby has helped launch five new programs, including Art in STEAM (STEM plus the arts), Art in Social Justice, and Art in Healing—designed for kids experiencing terminal illness or trauma, who have family members who are incarcerated, or have been victims of gun violence.

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